It’s one of the great unsolved art-world mysteries of the 21st century: Who is Banksy?
From street corners around the world to stunts in a Sotheby’s saleroom, the anonymous artist has certainly left his or her (or their!) mark on the art world.
Banksy’s identity has been the subject of countless theories (some conspiratorial, some more legitimate) over the years. One of them, that Banksy is the Bristol-born artist Robin Gunningham, is widely believed to be true.
But who can be certain? We can’t stop ourselves from coming up with more elaborate possibilities. Below, we ranked 7 people (from least to most likely) who have been identified as the artist, if only in an effort to rule out a few of the most outlandish contenders.
Satire Writer Paul Horner
Paul Horner, purported to be Banksy, was supposedly arrested by police in 2014. Photo: Screenshot via YouTube.
The backstory: In October 2014, a satirical news outlet claimed that Banksy had been arrested in London by members of the non-existent “Anti-Graffiti Task Force,” and that an ID had been found inside the artist’s studio belonging to one Paul Horner.
Defense: Horner never denied it.
Exculpatory proof: The plot twist? None other than Paul Horner had issued the theory.
As it turns out, Horner was a well-known satirical writer and the author of many internet hoaxes. While not exculpatory in itself, it seems improbable that Horner, who died in 2017, was Banksy. (Because of his propensity for hoaxing, it took the media several days to confirm his death.)
While Horner’s stunts do sound like something Banksy would do, the trickster lived in Arizona while Banksy was painting in Europe, making it practically impossible for the two people to have been one and the same.
Likelihood of being Banksy: 0/10
Banxy, a Breakdancer
The misidentified photo of Banxy.
The backstory: In July 2018, the now-shuttered media website Gawker published a photo of a man it alleged could be Banksy. The photo, dated to 1999, shows the man wearing khaki pants, a blue sports jersey, and a tan baseball cap, giving an upbeat wave to the camera.
Defense: The photo was found in the archives of the Rex photo service, labeled as: “Graffiti artist Banksy, shown in the Sony Playstation Skate Park in London in 1999.” When Gawker reached out to Rex, they confirmed that the image was indeed of Banksy.
Exculpatory proof: But it was all a big misunderstanding, as one dance enthusiast who happened upon the story figured out.
Turns out, the man in question wasn’t Banksy but… Banxy, a British breakdancer who appeared on a UK dance TV show with ballet dancer Deborah Bull as his dance partner. Gawker admitted to the mistake, publishing additional images they’d found of the dancer, and suggesting that the photographer who took the images had simply wrongly heard the name. Even so, we do think that a breakdancer’s cat-like moves could benefit Banksy… .
Likelihood of being Banksy: 0/10
English Rock Band Chumbawamba
A still from a video Banksy posted of his artwork inside a London tube car. Courtesy Banksy.
The backstory: A video posted to Banksy’s Instagram account in July 2020 showed the street artist (or a member of his team) boarding the London tube and spray painting his signature stencil of a rat on the walls.
The video ended with a contemporary riff on Chumbawamba’s biggest hit, “Tubthumping,” from 1997: “I get Lockdown, but I get up again.” Of course, that led to speculation among some that the street artist could actually be a member of the band.
The band’s defense: No one in the band seems to have taken the theory seriously enough to issue a defense.
Exculpatory proof: Banksy allegedly toured with a community soccer team from Bristol in the 1990s. During that same period, Chumbawamba was at the height of its fame, touring the UK and Europe. It would be hard, though not impossible, to be making waves as a graffiti artist, a club soccer player, and a chart-topping musician all at the same time.
Likelihood of being Banksy: 1/10
Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash
Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash. Photo courtesy of BFA.
The backstory: Guetta was the star of Exit Through the Giftshop, a movie directed by Banksy about a documentary filmmaker (Guetta) who sets out to chronicle the world of street art only to become a renowned street artist himself.
In the film, Guetta comes into contact with Bansky, and is eventually granted access to film the artist’s crew as they work. Many have since questioned if the film itself was a mockumentary, and if Mr. Brainwash is simply a creation of Banksy and fellow artist Shepard Fairey.
Defense: In reference to the film, Guetta once told the Los Angeles Times: “In the end, I became [Banksy’s] biggest work of art.” Observers have taken this to mean that the persona of Mr. Brainwash is, in fact, a creation of Bansky’s, but that Guetta himself is probably not Banksy. When asked whether the movie was real, Banksy wrote “Yes” in a reply on his website.
Exculpatory proof: After Exit Through the Giftshop came out, the Los Angeles Times independently verified details of Guetta’s biography, including that he was born in France and grew up in Los Angeles.
He found success designing merchandise for Warner Brothers in the 1990s, and the timeline traced by the Times indicates that he was firmly planted in Southern California during the period Banksy was most active in the UK. While Guetta may be in cahoots with Banksy, it’s unlikely he is the mastermind.
Likelihood of being Banksy: 2/10
The Street Artist Itchers
Banksy’s (or Itcher’s) mural in Nottingham. Courtesy Banksy.
The backstory: While rumors have long swirled that Banksy is actually a group of artists operating under one name, most people have assumed all the artists would be in on the ruse. Perhaps not!
In October 2020, after Banksy posted a mural of a girl with a hula hoop in Nottingham, England, to his Instagram account (his typical way of authenticating a work), another UK graffiti artist by the name of Itchers emerged, claiming the work was in fact his own.
Defense: Itchers claims to have the stencil to the original image as proof of his authorship. Several of Itchers’ earlier works have a Banksy-esque style.
Exculpatory proof: But even if the artist isn’t the Banksy, he maintains that this Banksy is his. Itchers seemed uncertain about why the famous artist would take credit for this work.
“It’s definitely mine, I’m not sure what he is doing to be honest, I’m flabbergasted,” he told The Daily Mail.
Likelihood of being Banksy: 3/10? Really, this one has us stumped.
Gorillaz Founder Jamie Hewlett
Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz. Photo by Shamim/WireImage.
The backstory: An anonymous forensics expert claimed in April 2019 to have found that the name “J Hewlett” was closely associated with many of the shell companies Banksy uses to conduct business. Could that be Jamie Hewlett, the artist who co-created the band Gorillaz? There’s more to the possible connection: Banksy designed the album cover for a Blur record made by Hewlett’s Gorillaz collaborator, Damon Albarn.
Defense: Banksy’s publicist issued a response to the allegations, stating that “Jamie Hewlitt is not the artist Banksy.” The eagle-eyed forensics expert, however, noted that the publicist had misspelled Hewlett’s name in the rebuttal, raising suspicions that it was an intentional sleight-of-hand.
Exculpatory proof: While Banksy was busy tagging the streets of Bristol in the mid-1990s, Hewlett was living in London. Still, “J Hewlett”’s involvement with Banksy’s companies seems like a little more than a coincidence… At the very least, Hewlett may know Banksy’s true identity.
Likelihood of being Banksy: 4/10
Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack
Robert Del Naja. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
The backstory: In 2010, rumors began to swirl that Banksy murals popping up across North America were by Robert Del Naja, the visual artist and frontman of the band Massive Attack. The timing seemed to make sense: the murals appeared to pop-up in cities coinciding with the band’s tour schedules.
What’s more, Del Naja, like Banksy, makes his own art with stencils, and Del Naja’s artworks, which have appeared on all the band’s album covers, share certain graphic sensibilities with Banksy’s murals. Del Naja, who claims to be friends with the mysterious artist, has said that his works even helped to inspire his fellow Bristolian.
In 2016, journalist Craig Williams reignited the rumors when he suggested that Del Naja was one a group of artists who together formed “Banksy.” Then, in 2018, the DJ known as Goldie casually referred to Banksy as “Robert” in a podcast interview, adding another dash of fuel to the fire.
Defense: While Del Naja calls Banksy a friend, he flatly denies being the artist himself. Del Naja told The Daily Mail: “Rumors of my secret identity are greatly exaggerated… It would be a good story but sadly not true. Wishful thinking, I think.”
Exculpatory proof: Aside from Del Naja’s adamant denial, Goldie later admitted that he’d name-dropped “Robert” simply to throw people in a tizzy.
Likelihood of being Banksy: 5/10
Follow artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.